Readers who are interested in only plot will find The Scarlet Letter disappointing. It’s not exactly the fastest paced novel ever written. That should not, however, deter the student of literature from reading it. Hawthorne creates Literature’s first heroin and delves deep into the workings of the human mind and heart.
Feel I’ve left out important events from the Scarlet Letter summary or included unnecessary information? Feel free to comment on these chapter summaries of The Scarlet Letter at the bottom of the article.
Summaries of Chapter 1 to 6
Use this Scarlet Letter summary and affix a scarlet ‘A’ on your next quiz.
- Chapter 1: The Prison Door – The narrator sets the scene–Boston, 1600s, Puritan law. The setting is gloomy, with the exception of a rose-bush just outside the prison door.
- Chapter 2: The Market Place – Hester Prynne emerges from the prison door with a scarlet ‘A’ on her chest. She walks to the scaffold where she is publicly condemned for committing adultery and giving birth to an illegitimate child. Hester notices a misshapen, older Englishman toward the back of the crowd.
- Chapter 3: The Recognition – The aforementioned Englishman is Hester’s husband, whom she had not seen in years (not exactly the best greeting a husband could hope for). He discovers that Hester refuses to divulge the name of her lover.
- Chapter 4: The Interview – Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, visits her cell to administer medicines. Hester refuses to tell him who the guilty man is. Chillingworth, nevertheless, vows to discover his identity and makes Hester promise not to reveal his.
- Chapter 5: Hester at her Needle – Several years pass. Hester supports herself through needlework.
- Chapter 6: Pearl – Pearl is Hester’s only solace. She has inherited her mother’s passion, moodiness, and defiance. Pearl is intrigued by the scarlet letter and proves to be a difficult child (if the entire town ostracized you, you’d be difficult too).
Analysis: Imagine all your faults and mistakes being made public. That’s Hester’s experience. It’s difficult to imagine how the Puritans would have handled the internet. They would have certainly scorned online smut, but they would have eagerly used the web to humiliate sinners. Hester’s willingness to remain in Boston puzzles many readers. The narrator provides several explanations, the most likely being that her lover still resides there.
Chapter Summaries of The Scarlet Letter: 7-12
- Chapter 7: The Governor’s Hall – Hester goes to the governor’s mansion after hearing he wishes to take Pearl away.
- Chapter 8: The Elf-Child and the Minister – The governor, Chillingworth and Reverends Wilson and Dimmesdale enter. The governor and Wilson inform Hester that Pearl should be taken away after Pearl mischievously gives wrong answers to religious questions. Hester makes an appeal to Dimmesdale, who convinces the others to allow Pearl to remain with her mother. Pearl presses Dimmesdale’s hand to her cheek.
- Chapter 9: The Leech – Chillingworth spends much of his time with Dimmesdale, who is very ill. Chillingworth is initially looked on as a blessing, but as Dimmesdale’s health grows worse, many consider him evil.
- Chapter 10: The Leech and his Patient – Chillingworth mentions weeds he found on someone’s grave and claims they grew from the dead person’s heart on account of unconfessed sins. Chillingworth and Dimmesdale have a heated discussion on the confession of sins. As Dimmesdale sleeps, Chillingworth discovers a mark on his chest and rejoices.
- Chapter 11: The Interior of a Heart – By now it’s obvious who Hester’s lover is. Chillingworth psychologically torments Dimmesdale who sleeps little and ponders his sin. He decides to hold a late night vigil on the scaffold where Hester had suffered years earlier.
- Chapter 12: The Minister’s Vigil – The minister ascends to the scaffold and screams as the pain in his chest worsens, but it is late and no one hears. Pearl and Hester pass by and they converse. Pearl asks Dimmesdale to stand with them at the scaffold the next day. Chillingworth appears and escorts Dimmesdale back to his home. The next day, Dimmesdale delivers a powerful sermon.
Analysis: It is clear that of the three main characters, Hester suffers least. Dimmesdale’s guilt destroys him, and Chillingworth’s monomaniacal revenge disintegrates his soul.
Scarlet Letter Summary: Chapters 13-18
Use this Scarlet Letter summary and afix a scarlet ‘A’ on your next quiz.
- Chapter 13: Another View of Hester – Seven years have passed since Pearl’s birth. The stigma of the scarlet letter has lessened. Her assistance to the poor and other charitable acts have caused some to regard the ‘A’ as meaning able instead of adultery.
- Chapter 14: Hester and the Physician – Hester informs Chillingworth, who has become the embodiment of evil, that she will tell Dimmesdale who Chillingworth is.
- Chapter 15: Hester and Pearl – After conversing with Chillingworth, Pearl returns. She connects Hester’s scarlet letter with Reverend Dimmesdale always clutching his heart.
- Chapter 16: A Forest Walk – Hester and Pearl wait for Dimmesdale on a path in the forest. Hester sends Pearl away as the minister approaches.
- Chapter 17: The Pastor and his Parishioner – Hester reveals Dimmesdale’s identity. Dimmesdale is angry, but forgives Hester. He acknowledges that Chillingworth’s sin is worse than theirs, for he violated the sanctity of a human heart. The two plan to sail to Europe together.
- Chapter 18: A Flood of Sunshine – The two feel free for the first time in years. Hester flings the letter into the woods and calls for Pearl.
Analysis: Hester has grown stronger over the past seven years. Dimmesdale has grown weaker. I think we know who controls this relationship.
Summaries of Chapters 19-24
- Chapter 19: The Child at the Brookside – Pearl refuses to return to her mother until she puts the scarlet letter back on. Dimmesdale kisses Pearl on the forehead. She runs back to the brook to wash it off.
- Chapter 20: The Minister in a Maze – Dimmesdale walks back to town and is tempted to corrupt everyone whom he passes. Upon returning he informs Chillingworth that he no longer requires his medicines.
- Chapter 21: The New England Holiday – There’s a public gathering in the marketplace. One of the sailors informs Hester that Chillingworth will be accompanying her on their voyage.
- Chapter 22: The Procession – A procession marches through town. Dimmesdale looks invigorated and energetic.
- Chapter 23: The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter – After delivering a memorable sermon, Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold, calls Hester and Pearl to his side, confesses his sin, rips open his shirt, and dies. Chillingworth laments that the reverend escaped him; Pearl gives the reverend a kiss, and the crowd is shocked by a mark on the reverend’s chest.
- Chapter 24: Conclusion – Speculation regarding Dimmesdale’s chest abounds. Hester and Pearl disappear, and Chillingworth dies within a year. Many years later, Hester returns to her cottage by the sea, voluntarily wearing her scarlet letter, which is no longer a stigma. She resumes her charity work and frequently receives packages from Europe. She is buried next to Dimmesdale with a scarlet ‘A’ on her tombstone.
Feel I’ve left out important events from the Scarlet Letter summaries or included unnecessary information? Feel free to comment below.
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This post is part of the series: The Scarlet Letter Study Guide
- Characters from The Scarlet Letter
- Chapter Summaries of The Scarlet Letter
- Understanding the Symbolism in The Scarlet Letter
- Important Quotations from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- The Scarlet Letter Study Guide: Practice Questions and Answers